Salone News

Sierra Leone: A digital President Bio embraces technology to transform the nation

10 February 2020 at 16:46 | 2521 views

Edie P Vandy - on behalf of the SLPPNA Communication’s Committee
Tel: 919-923-4764

In the era of artificial intelligence, innovation and big data, Sierra Leone has a technology savvy president at State House with eyes set on technology as a tool to transform the country and deliver basic services to the citizenry.
Digital Revolution is here, in healthcare to impact lives and in Artificial Intelligence (AI) to solve today’s “Big Data” challenges in predicting the future, with new opportunities around Machine Learning (ML) and automation to perfect systems and processes to help improve governance to serve the people.

For President Maada Bio, Sierra Leone cannot continue doing business the same way as in the past given the availability of Big Data solutions and new technologies. Prior to his assumption to office in May 2018, President Bio was already committed to using technology to provide solutions in fixing the country’s development agenda under the framework of the New Direction manifesto. Adam Valavanis, a former intern with the Africa Program at the Council on Foreign Relations has referred to President Bio as one who aspires to make Sierra Leone, the “Estonia of Africa.” This Baltic nation of Estonia with a mere 1.3 million people had a simple vision to become a tech-savvy nation with embrace of technology in all aspects of public service, from online tax filing, to e-governance, e-voting and internet-based computerized schools

Sierra Leone’s President Julius Maada Bio, is likely to have a mindset of a ‘Digital Gig’ with exploits in high technology and keen devotion to acquisition of skills in basic programming, according to Dr. David Moinina Sengeh, who is the country’s chief Innovation Officer. The President has sought partnerships with high tech players, institutions and countries in advanced technology, including Yale University, where as guest speaker for a Yale African Leaders Forum panel (September 24, 2018), spoke on the topic: “Human Capital Development & Innovation: Pillars for Sierra Leone’s Transformation.” The President has networked with the e-Governance Academy of Estonia "to establish technical collaboration on e-governance for public service delivery and administration in Sierra Leone,” in February 2019, with the vision of making Sierra Leone the “ Estonia of Africa.”

At the helm of delivering this technology milestone is Sierra Leone’s Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DTSI), headed by David Moinina Sengeh, a bionics specialist with a PhD from MIT. Dr Sengeh and his team has had training at Estonia’s e-Governance Academy in May 2019; a training that formed part of the strategic development plan focused on 6 technological projects to improve government efficiency and service delivery: from Integrated Geographic Information System (IGIS), to Education Data Hub, Financial Data Mapping, Ease of Doing Business, GoSL Appointment System and the Drone Corridor.

Partnerships with the Tony Blair Institute was forged with DSTI in technology to improve data collection on education, on mapping to help improve revenue collection from Freetown’s property taxes, digitizing of the country’s visa application process and building of a government data architecture to support data for policy and decision-making. The bilateral MOUs signed with India (October 14, 2019) to the tune of US$ 217.5 million, will open the gateway for Sierra Leone’s participation in the VidyaBharati and e-AarogyaBharati (e-VBAB) Network Project in Africa. This is strategic in the bridge of digital knowledge in tele-education and tele-medicine to link educational institutions and hospitals in India with those in Sierra Leone. India will be setting up a Centre of Excellence in IT infrastructure as well.

President Bio’s digital vision is aimed at transforming an impoverished nation inherited into a major hub for technology and innovation. The country’s digital president has toiled with such innovative ideas like Nanotechnology, blockchain, and cloud computing, for pilot as breakthrough in the nations’ transformation and competitiveness. Devices like MinION, designed for genetic sequencing and analysis has caught the attention of the President for application in bioresearch, healthcare and agriculture. This discovery was made when the President visited Canada on invitation for a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Talk presentation on the future of Sierra Leone, made possible by Dr. Sengeh who had introduced President Bio for a speaking session. As part of the follow up mechanism, researchers from Canada were brought in to train local scientists in plant disease diagnostics (for green mite that attacks cassava) and the police on potential uses of DNA sequencing in criminal investigations involving sex crimes. According to Yusuf Keketoma Sandi, Press Spokesman’s, "The power of genomics and mobile computing now allow students to build models to identify early cassava diseases on solution and recommendations to farmers." DSTI is reporting that Sierra Leone now has its first robotics research division backed by Yale University. And there are reports of an American transportation technology company (Virgin Hyperloop One) interested in green transportation, which is a high-speed technology concept called Hyperloop.
Big Data

The ongoing digital revolution and mining of Big Data under President Bio is bearing great outcomes, that includes an Education Dashboard which has placed school information at the finger-tips of average Sierra Leoneans to query in real-time clean and validated educational datasets like school location, no of students, classroom size, no of teachers and qualifications, availability of school facilities or not, and exam scores, etc. The school dashboard system was funded by donors ($1.5 million) to support innovative ideas in education meant to benefit some 170 schools throughout the country.

A visionary and technology savvy president has pushed for the unravelling of Africa’s first digital identification system designed around the blockchain technology and cloud computing to track citizens credit history to power an online ID-based credit system. This agreement was negotiated by President Julius Maada Bio on August 21, 2019, with Kiva, a San-Francisco-based non-profit entity, as part of the broader strategy to open the economic space and guarantee financial inclusion for those excluded from the formal banking sector, and ultimately enable them gain access to financial services including opening of new accounts and access to low interest loans from banks. The technology is set-up to assign digital wallets to would be customers through a blockchain ledger that records secured personal information and storage of credit history using fingerprints and other existing biometric data, for ease of lender access and verification of credit history. At the unveiling ceremony of the Directorate of Science, Technology and Innovation (DSTI) at State House October 2018, Chief Minister, Prof. David Francis, was emphatic in the “use of science, technology and innovation to deliver key government’s businesses in the areas of e-health, e-government, e-education and e-security.”

The use of Big Data saw David Sengeh and Team in consultation with the Executive Director of the Sierra Leone Roads Safety Authority flagged fraudulent statistics on some 4,694 (out of the 281,000) unaccounted government vehicles registered during the past ten years by the former administration. Biometrics verification was used (September 10-24, 2018) by the National Civil Registration Authority (NCRA) and the Human Resources Management Office, to clean a rigged public service payroll system burden with fake and non-existing profiles and duplicates ID receiving benefits not merited. Process was mainstreamed by the Ministry of Finance for closure of payroll loopholes, eliminate ghost workers and stop wastage and loot of state resources by the few. And as recent as January 30, 2020, an economic data analytics tool was introduced to be called: Sierra Leone Economic Data Analytics Tool (SLEDAT). SLEDAT was programmed by DSTI in response to citizen’s economic concerns, with a view of driving investment and research with provision of good, quality and consistent economic data on foreign exchange rate, Consumer Price Index (CPI), Import and Export Values, etc. in real time.
The Digital President

President Bio is zeroed on a vision of digital transformation as solutions for the myriad of problems and finding fixes innovatively. This vision aligns with that of the Chief Innovation Officer at the Directorate of Science and Technology, Dr Moinina David Sengeh, now more convinced on use of innovation and data to inspire and seek new solutions to the country’s persistent perennial problems. The President has tenured the belief that the problems that confronts the nation from the bloated cost of governance by way of fraud and leakages, corruption, revenue collection, and public service delivery, can be resolved by technology, hence leaving no stone unturned to champion new innovative solutions as means to move the nation forward in solutions around “urban housing and poverty, water, sanitation, and health, improved access to justice, access to information, and access to quality education fit for purpose.”

The digitization of the country’s MDA’s eco-systems has been lacking in the past. Not now, given the ongoing digitization happening across the board, including the National Revenue Authority (NRA) committed to revenue digitization and deployment of a new Integrated Tax Administration System (ITAS), as means to greater revenue generation. The funding is coming from a 5.7-million-dollar contract agreement with Techno Brain Global, Crown Agent and Tiwai memory Master. The new management at NRA has embraced other technologies from full implementation of Electronic Cash Register (ECR) for roll out in 2020, to that of an upgrade of the Automated System for Customs Data (ASYCUDA+) to ASYCUDA World by end January 2020; all geared towards automation for GST collection in a fair and transparent manner. These new systems are going to allow for increase revenue collection and reduce leakages, unlike past technologies froth with corruption.

A digital one-stop-shop Teacher Application, Approval, and Allocation Portal (TAAAP) is now up and running, set-up by the Directorate of Science, Technology, and Innovation (DSTI) (in September 2019), to make teacher recruitment and placement seamless. MIT graduate -Citlali Trigos-Raczkowski lead the portal design of an application meant to leave a digital footprint and shortens the teacher recruitment process in a transparent way. Sorie I. Turay, Secretary, Teaching Service Commission was dealing with a cumbersome manual process of signing over 5,000 pages of applications but now given a tool that makes him effective with a click of the button and append signature whilst enhancing recruitment. The country’s oldest university, Fourah Bay College now has an online application-based system for students to register, hailed by many as a breakthrough from the past.

These programmatic data driven solutions are a means to move from manual paper based processes to electronic based systems as part of the transformational change in the adaptation of technology under this administration, with the main premise according to President Bio, “to leave no citizen behind, and a commitment to use digitization to improve the delivery of goods and services to citizens.”

Today’s new era is exciting and technological driven. It demands for acquisition of new skillsets, processes, technologies and best practices to help focus on emerging opportunities offered by technology and good laws. Advanced Analytical and Technical skills are needed to interrogate and mine high volumes of the country’s data from a variety of data sources. Sierra Leone now has the political will and infrastructure framed for such a transformation. Since the plug has been pulled, and the tone set by a passion president ready to embrace technology; new players and innovators from within and outside are coming in to expedite process and be the change. The local innovators now need to be supported and capacitated to make improvements on their products for the markets. This is a pitch, a call for action to every Sierra Leone be a part of the country’s digital transformation. If there is an idea in mind, bring it on and leverage it for the good of the country.

Edie Vandy